One of the designers from Packard was a fellow named Ray Dietrich. He also designed automobiles for Chrysler. In the early 1960’s Gibson Musical Instruments hired him to design a guitar. The 1960’s was a decade of innovation.
Many products reflected this cultural focus of modern flight. Manufactured decked out automobiles with tail fins, as if they could fly. Marketing of all products ensued with space-age names. Guitars were no exception.
The original models are known as reverse Firebirds, since the body’s treble horn is longer than the bass horn. Dietrich used the Explorer as a basis, but rounded the guitars edges into a more appealing shape.
To accommodate tuning the guitar, Gibson decided to use banjo tuners instead of guitar keys.
Firebird I – one bridge pickup – stud/bridge tailpiece = chrome hardware – dot neck without binding.
Firebird III – two pickups – stud/bridge tailpiece and Gibson Vibrola tremolo bar – chrome hardware dot neck with neck binding.
Firebird V – two pickups – tune o matic bridge with Maestro Lyre Vibrola bar – chrome hardware – trapezoidal position markers with neck binding.
Firebird VII – three pickups – tune o matic bridge with Maestro Lyre Vibrola bar – gold plated hardware – block position markers with neck binding.
The original Firebirds utilized mini-humbucking pickups with non-exposed pole pieces.
In 1965, Gibson not only did not see the sales they wanted from the Firebird, plus their competitor was suing them. This resulted in Gibson implementing a design change.
The upper horn was now longer than the treble horn. The headstock was now right side up with traditional Gibson tuners. Pickup configurations experienced a slight change. Models V and VII remained the same, however models I and III now had two or three P-90 pickups instead of mini-humbuckers and both were equiped with standard vibratos.
Since 2002, the Firebird has been manufactured by Gibson’s Custom Shop and under their Epiphone brand. The pickups on both models have since been modified.
Thunderbird II – one bridge pickup – chrome bridge – chrome string stop – unbound dot neck – volume and tone control.
Thunderbird IV – two pickups with one at the body’s center and one close to the bridge. Both pickups were covered by chrome hand rests – unbound dot neck –two control knobs – later version had two volume knobs and a single tone knob.
Here is an interesting note about the Reverse Thunderbird. John Entwistle, of the Who, loved the Thunderbird design but hated the neck.
Due to the length of both the guitar and especially the bass, considering both had an extended headstock, if the instrument fell off a stand, the headstock broke off.